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After the rain, the snails come out. They push their slimy boneless bodies out of their shells as they move along. After the rain, the inhabitants of Sarajevo go foraging in the treeless fields amidst tangles of iron and fresh mounds of earth. They bend over furtively, excitedly, to pick up the shiny little creatures. It’s been months since they last ate meat. Then it rained, and today the women smile and unpack their treasure in their empty kitchens. The children smile at the sight of the snails climbing on and falling off the table. Like the others, Velida came home with a bag full of snails that she’d gathered secretly, in an isolated park, because she was ashamed for others to see her hunger.
We dip our bread in the pan. A slightly cloying odor fills the kitchen. Snails cooked in Turkish spices, Bosnian vinegar and broth from the humanitarian packages. A delicacy.
Later Velida will blame this too-good food for having restored a happiness they hadn’t felt for a long time, a misleading and harmful happiness.
Jovan’s eyes were shiny, and there was a bit of color in his cheeks after months of rough grey skin.
After he finished eating, he lit a cigarette from a package Diego had given him. Drinas that they wrap now in pages taken from books because there’s no more paper. Naturally, they started with books in Cyrillic. Jovan was sorry to see his culture going up in smoke, but how could he refrain from having a cigarette after a real luxury like a plate of snails?
Jovan went out when it was silent again, when Velida resumed chopping nettles and the good smell of the snails had disappeared forever.
He hadn’t been out for months. He dressed to the nines in his wool vest, a wide tie and his old kippah on his head. He picked up the bag he’d used as a professor and said he felt good and that he was going out for a walk.
Unreal words in that ghost city, in those houses without lights, without glass, the best furniture sold and the worst pieces chopped to bits for burning.
“Where are you going, Jovan?”
“I’m going to the university.”
Velida didn’t have the courage to stop him. She’d always respected her husband’s wishes, and it hardly seemed the time to treat him as if he were under house arrest. She simply tried to tell him that the university had been shelled like all the other important buildings. Jovan nodded.
“I’m going to go see if there’s anything to be done.”
He smiled and came out with an old Yiddish proverb. If a man is fated to drown, he may die in a teaspoon of water.
It was too late when Velida came to knock at my door, when it was already dark and past curfew and Jovan had been gone for hours. She wasn’t crying, but her head trembled more than usual.
She was worried but still courageous. She had done the right thing.
Today, on a mid-November day, after a meal of snails and two glasses of homemade brandy made with rice from the humanitarian aid packages, the elderly Jovan—a Serbian Jew from Sarajevo, a biologist whose field of expertise was freshwater species and who had spent his entire life studying the evolution of oligochaetes and of unicellular flagellate algae—went out to take a glance at the wreckage of his city, at the destruction of his species, the peaceful species comprised of the Muslims, Serbs, Croatians and Jews of Sarajevo.
The dark ate away at Velida’s memory lined face. She had no regrets. If Jovan had felt the need to go, it was right that he had gone.
In the summer of 2008 Gemma and her teenage son, Pietro, board a flight from their native Rome for a trip to Sarajevo, where Gemma hopes to teach him about the city of his birth and tell him more about Diego, his dead father, whom Pietro has never met. It's been sixteen years since the war in Bosnia—sixteen years since Gemma had to flee the city with Pietro, a city to which she and Diego had grown deeply attached. Memories of the brutal siege haunt her every move.
Gemma is equally haunted by memories of her ardent love affair with Diego, which began in Sarajevo well before the war. She's there on a research trip, during the festive weeks of the 1984 Winter Olympics. At first she finds both Diego and his Bosnian friend Gojko strange, but Diego's passion for life, for his art, and most of all, for Gemma move her, and over time his open heart wins her over. She's convinced they make an odd couple, yet they begin a life together back in Rome where they set up an apartment, develop their careers, and plan to start a family.
Biology, however, is not on their side. As years pass and their options for having a child dwindle, Gemma and Diego feel a growing sense of loss that starts to take a toll on their relationship. They become desperate, traveling to Ukraine to meet with surrogate mothers (surrogacy is illegal in Italy), and finally back to Sarajevo just as the long-simmering ethnic conflict breaks out. There, as snipers occupy the hills, pillage homes, and hold the city under siege, Gemma and Diego are faced with a chilling dilemma that threatens to tear them apart.
Now, sixteen years later, Gemma reunites with Gojko and the remaining survivors of the war and discovers she must make peace with the losses she's endured and the choices she's made for the sake of her family.
Masterfully told in alternating glimpses of the past and present, Twice Born is a powerfully raw account of how the brutality of war intersects with the most personal tragedies. Gemma's journey through her difficult past is enlivened by a vivid cast of characters and their beautiful, generously rendered bonds. In this haunting and powerful novel, Mazzantini explores the meaning of motherhood, and her lyrical, unsparing prose drills down to the deepest truths of violence and love.
ABOUT MARGARET MAZZANTINI
Margaret Mazzantini lives in Rome with her husband and four children. Twice Born won Italy's Premio Campiello. Her previous novel, Don't Move, sold 1.5 million copies in Italy, won the Premio Strega and the Premio Grinzane Cavour, and became a feature film directed by Sergio Castellitto and starring Penélope Cruz.
A CONVERSATION WITH MARGARET MAZZANTINI
Q. Twice Born was immediately a huge bestseller in your native Italy. How do you imagine it will be received here in the States?
Twice Born tells the story of a young couple's long journey into the rite of parenthood—a universal theme. The thing that makes this child's entry into the world extraordinary is war, which, even as it kills, also creates life. Through the story of this family the book recounts the last twenty years of European history, which I believe will interest American readers.
Q. What inspired you to write this novel?
I always start with some sort of handicap. All of my main characters have this in common—there's always something missing, some emptiness, that compels them to move beyond the boundaries of their ordinary lives. They're looking for something. So I imagined a woman we all can picture: she's modern, intellectual, upwardly mobile—but she can't have children. She becomes fixated on what she lacks, blinded by her obsession. And in the midst of it she encounters war, which brings the darkness of real violence and deprivation. And that dark tunnel becomes the long voyage of rebirth.
Q. The book shows a great familiarity with Sarajevo and the recent war that raged through it. How were you able to bring the city so vividly to life? And how were you able to delve so deeply into the acts of both brutality and generosity that war can inspire?
All wars are alike. All of them weigh heavily on the shoulders of innocent civilians. I wanted to talk about war as a metaphor. As absolute evil, a theater of human absurdity where love ends and horror begins. The war in the former Yugoslavia was a war in the heart of Europe, taking place just a few miles across the sea from our gorgeous beaches here in Italy. And yet at the time we viewed it as a foreign humanitarian crisis, as if it didn't really have anything to do with us. I'd just given birth to my first child in 1991, when the conflict began. I was nursing a newborn, feeling like I held the future and the hope of the world in my arms, and there were these horrific images on TV, images of the holocaust repeating itself. How was it possible to be happy?
Years later I got on a plane and went to Sarajevo. And I saw this city that was both Eastern and Western, a city that was multiethnic before the war, an example of civil cohabitation, of art, of beauty. And I saw the wounds, which were so visible everywhere. I met men and women still full of dignity and beauty. I wanted to tell about this city—the joy as it celebrated the 1984 Winter Olympics (where Diego and Gemma's love story begins). And I wanted to describe the city as it is today, now that the wars have ended, and the TV news and the journalists are all gone, and the survivors are stuck with their pain and without an audience. I wrote this book with the desire to capture the threads of beauty and human passion among the many wrongs they suffered. I wrote this book because we must not forget.
Q. The story's fluctuation between the present day and the 1990s produces a dynamic sense of tension as we slowly comes to understand the events that led to the birth of Gemma's son, Pietro. We think we've uncovered the whole story, but as readers will see, there is heart-dropping shock in the book's final pages. Did you have the ending planned when you began writing, or did it unfold somewhere along the process?
I usually don't predetermine structure and I don't make outlines. For me, writing is a reckless act, a challenge. I give myself over to this unknown thing, something that only reveals itself as I write. I did, however, have an aim with this book. I knew that this child was going to come out of the dark womb of war. That was the real intuition at the heart of the book. Then, around this parable, I created the figures of an elaborate end-of-the-millennium nativity scene, if you will—these frantic young people who were stuck, but hungry for the future, for poetry and music, for love without limits, for missed opportunities. They were the ones who pulled me along. I followed the little wars of their daily lives.
Q. The nature of maternal love is a central concern of the novel. Why did you choose this setting to explore the many questions and issues a mother's love can raise?
I'm a storyteller. I never like to repeat what I already know how to do, what I've already done. I like to challenge myself and begin from scratch, staring into uncharted territory. I envisioned an infertile Madonna figure and thought about how sterility informs our society. This is an intimate book, but it isn't navel-gazing. It's wide open, and I tried to encompass everyone in it. I didn't stand in front of the mirror to write it—I looked out the window. I looked at the world, listened to it. I thought about our pampered Western society and our hard, post-Communist East. I thought about these distant destinies on the march, moving towards each other without realizing it, looking for each other so they could tend each others' wounds, find a cure for life's sadness, and together find meaning in the emptiness of war.
Posted September 4, 2014
No text was provided for this review.